My friend Nony (vegan ironman, grandfather, and dad of my beloved Noa and Uri) was the first to tell me about the Carretera Austral some years ago and would have liked to ride it with me had he not an important bat mitzvah to attend. His advice was to ´take it slowly and cheerfully`. In truth I suspect he`d have found it as hard to take it `slowly` as I struggle to take things `cheerfully` - perhaps we´d have learned something from each other! In any case I am attempting to channel his exuberance when struggling with my mood.
Bariloche to El Bolson
My bike felt very heavy indeed as I resumed my continental journey in Bariloche having flown (by the skin of my teeth) from the capital where I had an extended break. The first day heading south was fine and I felt positively excited as I finished off Audrey´s nutty Christmas cake with a flask of mate by a lake. I discovered Argentine Patagonia´s national parks have three grades of official campsite: organised, agreste (basic) and libre (free and without facilities). It being peak summertime I was surprised to find only one other camper at my first (Lago Guillelmo, agreste) site, which had everything a campsite needs bar showers! My good mood soon waned when it rained all night, for all of my second day (pausing briefly to SNOW!) and all of the second night while I wild camped by a river. What on earth was I thinking leaving Buenos Aires for Patagonia without buying at least a proper rain jacket!
After a festival of queer dissidence and resistance in El Bolson I had thought of riding north again to loop around the Seven Lakes region. I soon abandoned the idea on the advice of my friend Stuart - who rightly supposed I would hate the heavy traffic - and on realising I would be seeing a hundred more lakes further south. Though it was nice to be in El Bolson during the festival it lacked structured opportunities for meeting people, so I didn´t. I did, however, enjoy the small march through the town, and ate some trout ravioli and possibly the best ice cream of my life: the classic combination (right?) of dulce de leche with blackberries, elderberry, and mate flavours. I did not find a suitably cheap raincoat but did buy an extra pair of cycling gloves and had my brakes seen to.
El Bolson to Trevelin
Soon after El Bolson I was glad to get off the famous (but in my experience pretty awful) Ruta 40, with its convoys of honking Argentine holiday-makers and frequent buses. Cholila is a backwater by comparison; I spent a couple of nights at the sole hostel there and filed my tax return before leaving asphalt behind to tackle Los Alerces national park, named for its ancient trees. In spite of the ripio (gravel) I mostly enjoyed this stretch, and three nights of free albeit rather crowded lakeside camping.
At the first site, Lago Rivadavia, I tried early in the morning to help a beautiful, possibly juvenile swift (golondrina) I found on the beach, alert but unable to fly. It seemed surprisingly relaxed cupped inside my hands and even turned its little head as if to have a nap. I found a nest nearby with a baby bird in it… of a different species! So I set my little swift back down on the beach (in a silk nest!). It chirruped at its low-flying brethren (I´d never noticed what a sweet noise swifts make!) then crashed about for a while and one cup of coffee later I found it had died. I felt disproportionately sad and wondered what had happened to it. (Side-note: You know you´re touch-starved when you don´t want to stop holding a recently deceased wild bird.) At the second site (Lago Futalaufquen) I was amazed by the tameness of the resident birds, particularly a wren and a casually bathing hawk. Wrens in general seem a lot bolder in Patagonia than I remember them elsewhere, and there are several striking and noisy species.
Trevelin to Santa Lucia
I rather liked Welsh colony Trevelin, where I camped at the police union campsite, backed up photos at an excellent bakery, stocked up on cheap Argentine basics and ate a huge `Welsh tea` including my first cream pie (titters). The road to the Chilean border is notoriously bad, but I have to say that after my time on Peru´s great divide route and on the appalling unpaved roads between Santiago del Estero and Cordoba I´m no longer shocked by what passes for a ´main road’ in these parts!
Just before the border I camped at a stunning basic site beside the blue-green Rio Futaleufu where I bathed in the river, had a close encounter with a beaver (I think) and a salutary encounter with a couple in a camper van. I greeted the woman cheerfully and asked if it was free to camp there. She promptly killed my vibe by asking if I was alone. Why oh why do people do that to adult women? I bet they don´t do it to men. I replied ´no importa´ (it doesn’t matter/ never mind) and moved off grumpily. I guess she felt bad, because later she and her husband came over to my fire (my first ever!) and presented me with an exquisite entire steak! I ate it gratefully and didn´t even bother cooking anything else!
Chile is my seventeenth and final American country not including Brasil! I tried sneaking some salami and cheese through Chilean customs. They found and confiscated it but didn´t fine me. Nice asphalt began at the border but lasted less than 20 kilometres before the road reverted to loose, often needlessly steep ripio. In Futaleufu I paid 4.5 GBP for a glass of beer, replaced my confiscated supplies (more expensive than Argentina as expected but not as bad as I feared) and bought a bottle of (cheap) welcome-to-Chile wine to enjoy before doing my annual month-off-booze on the Carretera Austral (CA).
Before reaching the CA I enjoyed some nice sunshine and two hassle-free wild campsites, one by Lago Lonconao and one by Puente Rio Malito. At the latter I turned a bad ripio-induced mood into a good one with three cans of lager and spontaneously shaved my head entirely for the first time ever. The next day the hill up to Santa Lucia was absurdly steep and I was irritated by a couple of Brits on a bloody tandem demanding out of nowhere (I think for the second time) ´Where are you from?` in English. I ignored them, mentally named them Pinky* and Perky, and hoped I`d manage not to see them again. (*She wears a pink anorak and - of course - sits behind him.)
On this stretch I also started listening in parallel to Judith Butler´s “Gender Trouble” (hard!!) and to Proust translated by Moncrieff and read by Neville Jason (great fun).
Carretera Austral! Santa Lucia to Coyhaique
Santa Lucia was partially wiped out by a landslide a couple of years ago and is a pretty grim place. I stocked up quickly and hit the famous Carretera Austral! It turned out to be nicely paved – except a few inexplicable ripio sections – all the way to Coyhaique and a bit beyond! What a pleasant surprise! The sun came out, I had a tail wind, the scenery was spectacular, there was little traffic, and my mood was so unusually good I made a little video to capture it!
That night I camped in a gorgeous spot next to the confluence of two rivers in Villa Vanguardia. A couple of young backpackers seemed relieved to find me setting up when they arrived and I spotted Pinky and Perky´s bloody tandem and tent hidden out of sight - like anyone is about to make off on their bloody tandem. I was reminded how scared I used to be of wild camping. Something I love about Patagonia is being able to drink crystal-clear lake and river water without even filtering it and being able to bathe too.
The next couple of days were cloudy and drizzly and that really affected my mood. In La Junta I tried at least half a dozen different kinds of shops for alcohol fuel and failed, which was a matter for serious concern as my Trangia cannot burn other kinds of fuel without an adaptor. I did however get a simple black plastic mac for 25 quid onto which some local genius had stenciled `Patagonia Chilena` to rip off the (US) brand! The woman in that shop told me there is no delinquency in Chilean Patagonia, except possibly in Coyhaique at 3am! I´ll be sure to tell Pinky and Perky if I have the misfortunate to see them again. Luckily I found ´solvente de quemar´ (meths) in Don Ciro´s supermarket in Puyuhuapi. Meths is actually the best alcohol fuel because it doesn´t cover everything in soot - result!
In Puyuhuapi (my first sighting of the Pacific Ocean since El Salvador!) I was a bit irritated by the lack of (advertised) hot water at the tiny and overcrowded Adonhai campsite and also by some birds which shat berries all over my tent. Actually I was mostly irritated with myself for hastily wiping the berry shit off with baby wipes and potentially compromising the tent´s waterproofing. Ben would tut. I had my first restaurant meal in several days (shrimps and salad, chocolate cake), but no alcohol as I´m now doing my annual month-off-booze bah.
The following day I decided to spend some money accessing touristy things I thought might be good for my back, which has been worryingly spasm-y since Los Alerces. I actually got going early (by ten!) in order to beat any Sunday crowds at the loch-side thermal baths. While 20 quid is ridiculously expensive for some water than comes naturally out of the hillside, the (oddly small) pools were very nice and hot, fortunately not busy, and the friendly staff let me take my morning coffee into the bath with me in my own mug! As they say, small things please small minds. I enjoyed alternating between the hot bath and the cold loch, getting some sun to my front (I protected my already-burned scalp with a knotted hankie!). The only irritations were the ubiquitous fucking horse-flies and a group of shouty young Israelis. While sitting in the bath I first thought of the phrase `What would Nony do?’ I thought he might be as irritated as me by the obliviousness of his compatriots to the people around them, and I asked one of them to ask the group to stop shouting! Then I immediately wondered if asking Israelis to be quieter was actually quite racist of me…
That night I paid to camp inside the Queulat national park and hiked before dusk (it´s light until well after 9pm) up a steep trail to a mirador overlooking the ´hanging glacier`. Wow. I´ve never seen a glacier before. As an older gentleman said on reaching the mirador ´It was worth the effort`. I also hoped the hike might have been a good change for my back. On the way down I mustered the courage to have a brief exchange with a woman about the merits of Crocs and socks for hiking! I`m sure Nony wouldn´t dream of hiking in Crocs, but if he did he´d definitely chat to other Croc-wearers. It was a great time of day for bird activity too; I saw two hummingbirds, some goldfinch-type things, and several types of wren.
The next day I was phenomenally grumpy when I discovered the steep road up over a 600m pass has inexplicably still not been paved and was substantially unrideable at least on the ascent. Note that this is the only road to the substantial city of Coyhaique! I realise Chile only started creating this road in the late 1970s but seriously… Peru and Bolivia have better roads at 5,000m above sea-level! My new rain jacket turned out not to be highly waterproof but definitely made a positive difference when combined with my soft-shell. Oh and I saw a condor that day.
I was relieved to come across an unexpected farm campsite with ´refugios´ (shelters) in the Cisnes valley, though my satisfaction was soon quashed by a couple of cyclists demanding instantly to know where I am ´from`. By this point it was already clear that my mood swings are out of control and that I have to find a way not to let this ´where are you from?` bullshit from fellow cyclists totally ruin my time in Patagonia.
In Villa Amengual the shops are very basic and closed in the middle of the day (though I managed to get one of them to serve me) but a simple restaurant was open serving huge portions of lentil stew with a hunk of tender cordero (lamb). I ended up skipping past several potential camping spots at Lago Torres, Lago Aguirre Cerda and Pasarela El Turbio and pushing on to Manihuales, which has a well-appointed campsite (BordeRio, with a little carpeted shed just for accessing wifi and charging things!) and at least one very good small supermarket and a ferreteria (hardware shop). That reminds me, I have recently discovered the wonder that is powdered milk (for my coffee, tea and porridge)!!!! (I suppose vegan Nony wouldn`t do that.)
Being a day ahead of my nominal ´schedule´ (lol) I decided not to fight a headwind down the Manihuales valley and stopped after 25km at a river beach that reeked of foxes. Looking forward to a nice peaceful afternoon and evening of pottering and reading (“Love 2.0” which is all about how to get more positivity resonance in your life haha) I was dismayed when no less than FOUR pairs of cyclists turned up and camped right on top of me! None of them were speaking English thank god. I asked a young woman what the sub-text of ´Where are you from?` is, and - while she agreed that being from Germany isn´t the most important thing about her - I still think she thought I was a bit mad for not just playing along with the bullshit. I gave them some gherkins though to have with their potato dinner, which I think redeemed me a bit. I guess I channeled Nony a bit there; he loves feeding people.
I leap-frogged the German-speaking group a couple of times the next day. Imagine trying to travel in a group – no thanks! I could feel my mood lifting as we all approached Coyhaique at the thought of clean clothes, clean me, accomplishing a bunch of stuff online, and sleeping in a bed for three nights. Oh and NOT CYCLING for two full days. I thought of splashing out on a private room but decided a hostel bed (at 16 quid/night, three times the price of a campsite) had everything I needed for a lot less money than a private room: hot water, a good kitchen, internet access and the use of a computer. I really like the Huella Patagonica hostel, the staff are nice, the bunks are spacious and everything has been well thought-out. Oh and the breakfast is huge!
Take it slowly and cheerfully
So far I´ve eaten a hare sandwich (titters again), bought fuel and literally tons of food for the road, and cooked a vat of vegetable curry. Tomorrow if the internet comes back on I´ll get a lot done while it rains. Then I´ll brace myself for the remaining two-thirds of Patagonia. The first two days to Cerro Castillo will be paved, then I`ve got at least 500km of ripio to look forward to before a complicated off-road crossing back into Argentina between Villa O`Higgins and El Chalten. Thereafter the route is mostly paved but between El Chalten – El Calafate – Torres del Paine national park – Puerto Natales – Punta Arenas and across Tierra del Fuego to Ushuaia (the `end of the world`) I should expect some serious winds and rain.
In summary, then, when frustrated my mind loops endlessly around `I´ve had enough of riding such a heavy bike now, I hate ripio, I hate weather, I really hate drivers and I´m not much keener on cyclists, I want to stop, or at least to have a van, and a cat´… When I sit by a clear river in the sunshine the mental soundtrack switches to `Patagonia is one of the scenic highlights of my American odyssey, I will finish it and I will bloody well enjoy it`. The challenge is to play the second tape more of the time, in spite of worsening weather and worsening roads. Have I mentioned the fuscias everywhere? I love the fuscias.
Take it slowly and cheerfully, he said…